The room is dark and the crowd eagerly waits. Large speakers are held on stands several feet high, and yellow caution tape crosses the room separating the audience from the band. The feeling is of a ’90s dive bar, some place you would go to hear Green Day or another punk band back in its early days. But this is no dive bar; the floor is too dingy and the room too cold. And there are no tempting groupies, or hipsters. There is no alcohol – at least none that is visible to the prison guards strategically placed around the event. This is a prison rock concert at FCI Petersburg, a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia.
Come 2 p.m. on this rainy Saturday afternoon, the stage clears and the members of Libertine gain the blocked-off performance area, an area also occupied by several pieces of indoor recreation equipment. Sangye and Terry pick up the battered guitars, Darryl his microphone, Trevor his drumsticks, and Patt his bass. All of the equipment is the property of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, not the prisoner musicians. Nevertheless, they play it like they stole it: hard and loud.
The air is not tense, but expectant. For years, the members of Libertine have been bringing down the house for their incarcerated audiences and fans. While other groups play music (some better than others), Libertine makes beautiful, jarringly loud, skillful, and soulful music. And they do so in the typically violent punk fashion of yesteryear. At this moment they are not prisoners or musicians, they embody the rock gods of days gone by, before the indie labels died and Clear Channel ruled the airwaves. The audience is diverse but oddly in synch. In a word, the relationship and the exchange between band and fans is true; hyperbole has been left by the wayside, replaced with absolute honesty and integrity in a land of convicts and gangsters.
“Are you ready to rock?!” intones lead singer Daryl, more of a command than a question. After all, a wiry, shirtless man with a shaved head, “death metal” tattooed across his toes (which are visible due to his lack of footwear), and the name “Libertine” tattooed across his heavily muscled stomach, does not ask questions, but demands answers. A chorus of validation echoes around the small, packed room. And the music starts to play.
Libertine plays its own material – it’s fast and complex and angry – but today is a cover gig, and the band bashes into “A Warrior’s Call” by Volbeat. A song by a Danish band, Libertine’s version seems darker and more menacing than the original one. The “fight, fight, fight” refrain is genuinely scary with an audience of convicts shouting along. And with the shouts, nervous looks can be seen by the prison guards on hand.
Standing in the back of the room an odd assortment of characters are visible. A man named John occupies a makeshift sound booth, which is equipped with a mix station and the customary yellow caution tape. John reminds one of a hippie in the wrong generation. He’s been down for 33 years. On the left of the room there are angry white dudes and burly black guys sitting on the various fitness machines. On the far right side there is an odd assortment of people; categorization fails to account for the melting pot of tattoos and no tattoos, hair and no hair, white, black, and Hispanic, and even the more unfortunate creepy convict. Even a couple of prison trannies have made an appearance for the show. And in the center of the crowd are those kindred spirits who most certainly have spent years and years in rock venues, one of whom is shirtless, banging his head and flipping his long hair for all he’s worth. All of them are moving to the music. All of them are connected to the art which is being created and shared in a momentary communion of those who do not commune together. After all, prison culture is all about voluntary segregation, whether by race, religion, creed, or even charge.
Prison rock is a culture unto itself. It is a following, a leading, and all with an instant cult acceptance. While some come to the shows to be thrilled by the absurd speed with which Sangye thrashes out guitar solos, others come to see Darryl hit his gnarly, grungy notes, growls which make you want to punch someone’s lights out. And still others come to enjoy Patt play a bass as if it were a cross between a harp and a machine gun, carefully orchestrated notes mixed with a hammering of skill that punctuates the expert vocals and the talent on the axe.
There is a lot of crappy music in prison, of course, as access to new music is sometimes limited. As such, every prison that has a music program usually has a classic rock band or two, guaranteed to butcher old ’70s staples. There is usually a Christian rock band, spoiled by the extra practice time and real equipment that the overwhelmingly evangelist-bent chaplains hook them up with. One such band does mutated versions of rock classics, including an unintentionally creepy version of “Prayin’ in the Boys Room,” missing the irony completely. But Libertine proves that some convict bands are good ones, when the whole band is stuck behind bars for decades and committed to their craft. They write solid songs, as good as anything on the outside, and with plenty of time to practice, they have some serious chops. Super tight and well-rehearsed, some caged rockers are genuine pros, the real deal.
Prison is hardly the land of happy songs and hand-holding, but more often than not, the convicts come together in the thing called “prison rock.” May it continue to be raw, real, and unadulterated for evermore.